Who Killed My Book Stores?

Borders Book Store by theboyds

26 Nov Who Killed My Book Stores?

I used to visit Borders bookstores at Wheelock Place and Parkway Parade regularly until they closed down few years ago.

I always feel smart soaking in the atmosphere of knowledge.

I prefer Borders over the rest of the bookstores because

  1. Every book can be flipped. Some bookstores keep the books wrapped.
  2. Stores are huge and almost any titles can be found.
  3. Periodic discounts ranging from 15-50% when you join their email list.
  4. Ambience and the smell of books are awesome.

Sadly, they are gone today as Borders went bankrupt (a small Borders book store exist in Jurong East today and the brand was bought over by Popular).

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Borders was not the only bookstore that suffered dwindling revenue and had to withdraw the entire business.

Remember the jagged bookshelves PageOne store has at Vivocity? Gone.

How about Prologue (by Popular) at Ion Orchard? Gone.

A book reader can finally empathise with an environmentalist – their habitats are endangering.

The bigger bookstores which are still standing are Kinokuniya, MPH, Popular (and Harris) and Times. Of course there are boutique book stores like Books Actually but they are not selling books actually. They are selling an experience that is very similar to the artisan cafe movement.

Are bookstores the thing of the past? What’s killing it?

#1 Online Bookstores

Times have changed. Consumers were wary about online shopping but it is a very different story now. My friends are raging about Taobao, blogshops, etc. Consumers WANT to buy online. It is amazing to witness how consumers’ desire can be shaped.

The biggest bookstore in the world, Amazon, offers free shipping to Singapore if you order above US$125. The books can be sold at 50% below the retail price in Singapore. You can easily double the number of books with the same dollars if you order it through Amazon.

If you do not want to buy US$125 worth of books, you can look to a subsidiary of Amazon, Book Depository, which offers free shipping to Singapore without minimum order! Of course, expect the price to be higher than Amazon. However, it can still be at least 20% cheaper than retail prices here. Fishpond is another online bookstore that does free delivery.

The brick-and-mortar bookstores are suffering because of these lower priced competitors. Their only advantage is to prey on consumers’ desire for instant gratification. While it can take up to weeks before you receive the delivery of your books, you can get it immediately at a major bookstore near you.

#2 Rent is Too High

Singapore is a landlord country. It means that property owners make decent profits by renting out their units. This hurts retail businesses the most as retail space is the most expensive to rent. All bookstores need large retail spaces and a good flow of crowd. These requirements are extremely costly.

In comparison, an online bookstore doesn’t need a prime retail space. It is much cheaper to rent an industrial unit for the warehouse.

And it doesn’t bode well with the bookstore owners when they learned that Amazon’s profit margin is less than 1%. This is just an indirect message from Amazon that she is all out to price competitors out of the market.

#3 Proliferation of Mobile Devices

Amazon introduced Kindle ebook reader many years ago. Soon iPad and other tablets emerged in the market as capable reading machines too. Softwares also kept up with the innovation pace with a wide variety of ebook formats. There is always a format that your device can open an ebook, or at least there is an app for it.

The biggest advantage of ebooks is the small storage space it takes up. You can bring your entire library in your hands. You can pull out the book you want anytime, anywhere. This power is alluring.

However, it isn’t rosy for everyone. The publishers and retail bookstores are confronted by the same threat the music industry faced previously – piracy. That is the initial price of digitisation that the society has to pay.

Overtime, the industry remodel their business and adapt to the new landscape. For example, Spotify is a music service which allows users to listen to any song in their library on the cloud. You do not even need to save it in your local drive. Amazon moved on to the same model for Kindle, where you pay a monthly subscription and you can read any book in the collection. It hasn’t really caught on, yet.

#4 Are There Less People Reading?

Another factor to consider is that there might be a declining number of readers which led to less demand for books. However, I cannot find reading trends and statistics that are credible. Intuitively, the reading trend should be declining considering the distractions from TV, radio, internet and mobile devices.

Books are written at a faster pace than readers can read them. We tend to ignore most of them when faced with infinite choices. It is too daunting to think of which books to read. Before you finish one, ten new bestsellers have emerged. We end up trying to find precise information quickly, which the internet helps us to do so. We prefer to read a short article like the one that you are reading now where the author synthesises the information with 1,000 words. Get the gist of it and sets you thinking.


I fear the end is near for the brick-and-mortar bookstores. It is no longer profitable to run them. The owners must think of a new way – why should people go to a physical bookstore? What appeals them? They can no longer sell books. They need to sell an experience. For example, despite the Nespresso machines becoming a commonplace in homes, people are still visiting Starbucks. Howard Schultz made it the ‘third place’. Likewise, bookstores must give consumers something that online bookstores cannot provide. Else, more bookstores will disappear as were the CD shops.

And for consumers, my belief is that reading is not well pursued in our modern world. Our consumption of information has changed. For better or worse I am not sure. But I think we cannot afford to give up reading.

In short, reading is undervalued. Facebook games are overvalued. Do more of the former and I think you will have a much bigger advantage over those who do not. You are what you eat (looks). You are also what you read (thoughts -> behaviour -> results).


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  • Richard Ng
    Posted at 10:54h, 26 November Reply

    Alvin : Good take on the potential demise of bricks and mortar bookstores! I am a regular bookstores wanderer too. The only option for me now is Kinokuniya.

    Personally I believed that there is still life of physical bookstores (just like cinemas, even though we can watch the movies easily without stepping into cinemas nowadays). Agreed with you that experience is something that the physical bookstores should cultivate and focus on (and I think Kinokuniya did it quite well so far).


  • Henry Tiong
    Posted at 23:21h, 29 November Reply

    Hi Alvin, I think the pursue of information has not declined because of the demise of brick and mortar bookstores. The information is still out there, online. Just that we take the good with the bad and readers need to be able to tell what are information that is relevant, and accurate, versus baseless rumours or just plain opinions from individuals who might not be that credible.

    The business model for bookstores need to change because the internet has altered peoples’ reading habits and pricing point. High rents may be a hurdle but we still see fashion retail shops around despite having so many online options. So there is a place for brick and mortar, it is just that the incumbents have not found the right formula to keep it sustainable.

    As for me, I am still hanging around section 332.63 of the national library. Free books~ Priceless and timeless nuggets of wisdom.

  • Zae
    Posted at 19:48h, 10 December Reply

    Stumble upon your site and love it. Keep it up! :)

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